Exactly What Happens to Your Body When You Don’t Get Enough Protein

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In an era of high-protein, low-carb diets, you'd think that a protein deficiency is unheard of, but you'd be surprised by how many people skimp on this mighty macronutrient, especially those who are intermittent fasting or cutting calories.

Protein is essential for a variety of bodily functions, including building and repairing muscles, curbing hunger and stabilizing blood sugar, and growing healthy hair and nails. So if you're not getting enough protein, it can impact everything from your weight to your mood. Our bodies can absorb only 20 to 30 grams of protein at once, says Sarah Mirkin, RDN, author of Fill Your Plate, Lose The Weight, a 21-day weight loss plan for women over 40. Mirkin recommends getting at least 20 grams of protein at each meal. Consuming this amount will help you stay satisfied and have enough energy to power through your day. That said, there are signs your body is telling you that you need bulk up on more protein. Look out for these red flags.

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You're working out but that belly fat won't budge.

When you lift weights, muscle fibers break down. To help you repair muscles and make them stronger than before, a post-workout serving of protein is paramount. "If you neglect to refuel with protein after your workouts, then you've only broken the muscle down, which results in muscle loss," says Mirkin. Enjoy one of these protein-packed snacks after a tough workout to help restore your muscles.

You're constantly craving sugar and carbs.

When you eat a meal that lacks enough protein, you're more likely to feel unsatisfied and reach for sugary, fatty foods. Natalie Jill, the lead trainer for Fit After 40, says, "Protein balances things out, stops cravings, and keeps us full longer." Be sure to consume enough protein at every meal to keep your sweet tooth in check. Some lean protein choices include wild-caught fish, sirloin steak, ground turkey, and chicken breasts.

Your skin is dry and flaky.

If you used to have plump, glowing skin that's now dull and flaky, it might be a sign that protein is lacking in your diet. "Protein makes up the building blocks of our hair, nails, and skin. If you're not getting enough, you might develop brittle, dry hair or dry, flaky skin," says Steven Bowers, DO, author of Secrets of the World's Healthiest People. Meal prep these spinach and goat cheese egg muffins for a portable and protein-powered breakfast all week.

You're hungry an hour after eating.

Carbohydrates take less time to digest than protein and fat. That means you'll feel hungry in less time if you load up on carbs and don't balance your meals with more protein and fat.

"If you start your day with just milk and cereal, your blood sugars will spike and then crash," explains Mirkin. "This will cause you to reach for more carbohydrates to lift you up again."

Mirkin recommends eating balanced meal with protein, fat, and carbs to stay full for hours. That breaks down to 40 percent protein, 30 percent fat, and 30 percent carbohydrate per meal.

You feel tired all the time.

"If you're skimping on protein, you may feel brain fog," says Mirkin. "Protein makes you feel more awake and alert while carbohydrates can make you feel sleepy."

An iron deficiency, also known as anemia, can also cause extreme fatigue. Some foods high in iron happen to also be high in protein, such as beans, quinoa, ground beef, and chicken liver.

Your hair is thinning.

A lighter ponytail could actually be your hair's cry for help. "Hair loss is very common from low-calorie and low-protein diets," says Mirkin. "Essential amino acids are necessary for healthy hair, skin, and nails." If you're not a meat eater or limit it from your diet, be sure to add these plant-based sources of complete protein to your meals. They contain all nine essential amino acids that our bodies can't produce on their own.

Mirkin specially created recipes that pack a double dose of hair-healthy ingredients in her new book Fill Your Plate, Lose The Weight. Try adding one of her favorites, like this salmon salad with avocado and tomatoes, to your weekly meal plan.

You're losing weight, but your clothes are still tight.

It's possible to weigh less but look like you haven't lost a single pound if you're losing muscle instead of fat. You tend to lose more muscle mass as you age. "When our hormones start to change, eating protein becomes even more essential because this is the time when our body starts losing lean mass," says Jill. Preserve hard-earned muscle by piling on the protein and nixing empty calories from sugary and highly processed foods.

You're moodier than usual.

Protein can boost your mood by providing the amino acids that are essential to the production of feel-good neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

"Without out these essential amino acids you are likely to experience depression, mood swings, and anxiety," says Mirkin. Next time you're feeling down, try one of these good-for-you protein waffles for a healthy sweet treat that'll lift your spirits.

You're always bloated.

Even if you avoid bloat-inducing beverages and foods, you can still experience swelling in your belly, legs, and ankles due to lack of protein.

"Protein is necessary to maintain an adequate balance of fluid in and outside of the cells of your body," says Mirkin. Bring your body back into equilibrium by incorporating more protein into your dishes, like swapping Greek yogurt for sour cream or swapping chocolate protein powder for cocoa powder in baked goods.

You're taking more sick days.

Protein powers the antibodies that fend off sickness, making it a major immune booster. If you keep catching colds, a protein deficiency could be to blame. Mirkin notes, "Most high-protein foods also contain zinc, which helps fight infection."

Get a major boost of germ-fighting power with this strawberry mango smoothie, which features vitamin C-packed mangoes and protein-rich Greek yogurt.

Fill Your Plate, Lose the Weight

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Get this 21-day weight loss plan for women over 40. Filled with  meal plans, grocery lists, and delicious high-protein recipes, you'll lose weight and start feeling stronger ASAP. 

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